Terezín ghetto by the end of the war (continued from Newsletter 1/2010)

The early spring of 1945 found the ghetto putting on a front once again. And once again, everything was being mended, renovated, just like the year before (in the spring of 1944). The “redecorated” town was to serve as a proof of the care supposedly provided to elderly Jewish inmates. Special homes for the elderly were established, with relatively more comfortable conditions. There were some new hospital rooms and more attention was given to homes for children as well. Terezín was to be filled with cultural events. The council of elders which up to that moment resided in the Magdeburg barracks was given the building of the former municipal savings bank. It was furnished in a way that was almost luxurious – complete with carpets and telephones. The barracks on the Jižní vrch were also redecorated, with beds brought in and curtains hung. They even put flowerpots in the windows…

Meanwhile, the SS men were busy destroying evidence of what took place in the ghetto prior to 1 January 1945; all documents and written records that mentioned prisoners that had been deported from Terezín was to be deposited in the archive, as were the lists of those who died in the ghetto. Later, the whole archive was carried away in trucks. The way the documents were being handled suggested they were to be burned soon. Offices and living quarters of the prisoners were searched in attempt to locate any materials of importance that might have been hidden. These efforts notwithstanding, some of the documents were eventually preserved.

Funeral Service Halls, May 1945

Funeral Service Halls, May 1945

The cemetery near the crematorium was tidied up. Cremations were halted and the dead were buried in the ground. Digging of new graves was to start in the same place where it had been abandoned in 1942. This was intended to show the important guests the way the Nazis supposedly respected Jewish traditions in the ghetto. The crematorium was profusely decorated with flowers. To anyone asking about the fate of the urns destroyed in the autumn on 1944, those who worked in the crematorium were to reply   that the urns had been transported to a graveyard in Prague. In order to have some sort of proof, about 150 urns were indeed taken to Prague. The “break” in cremating lasted from 18 March through 13 May 1945. Thereafter, cremations were reintroduced – for those who died of infectious diseases following the liberation of Terezín.

Crematorium, May 1945

Crematorium, May 1945

At the beginning of April 1945 four goods wagons with food from the International Red Cross arrived at Terezín. This is documented by a report of the Jewish council from 4 April 1945, MT 67, which says: „On 2 April 1945, a gift from the International Red Cross arrived at Terezín. The gift will be distributed on 5 April 1945 to each inhabitant of Terezín as a portion of 500 g of sugar and 200 g of rice. Further, each child and teenagers of up to 16 years will receive a chocolate bar…  the elderly of more than 65 years will receive half a chocolate bar each.”[1]

Before the committee itself arrived, Günther and Eichmann’s henchman Möhs turned up for an inspection.  They inspected the camp, the living quarters, talked to the prisoners and asked them about their health. The older prisoners wept and asked them what had become of their children which had been transported to the East. Günther and Möhs were at a loss, asked the camp commandant for advice and finally concluded they would empty the living quarters of the older prisoners and present them like that to prevent the committee from talking to the inmates. The committee was told the older prisoners were out on a trip. On 6 April 1945, the following delegates arrived at Terezín: Paul Dunant, member of the International Red Cross, with two other men. Once again, they were witnesses to a perfectly set-up front… and then they left.

Another important event that took place in April 1945 was the destruction of the RSHA archive. Documents were burned in the empty tank of the Sudetenland barracks yard and in the crematorium.

The prisoner workshops were busy handling the SS men’s “orders”. They ordered boxes for moving, clothing, shoes and underwear. They had their backpacks fixed. A field kitchen was assembled for the SS men, so that they could prepare their food while fleeing. Two smoking chambers were hastily set up to smoke meat for the SS men; livestock was slaughtered… The SS men, RSHA officers and their families were packing up and waiting to leave. Then one day a transport train arrived at Terezín once again, but this time it was not for the prisoners. The SS men took the train away, leaving only the commanders and guards in the camp. The separated part of the town which had been up inaccessible for the prisoners was now empty.

In mid-April, a car with the Danish flag arrived at Terezín. An announcement was made to the effect that on 15 April, the Swedish Red Cross would take the Danish prisoners away. They were to pack up and get ready to leave. And indeed, on that day, a motorcade of white coaches arrived with Swedes dressed in white uniforms. The prisoners were forbidden from approaching the Swedes, but they nevertheless did so and were given cigarettes. Moreover, the coaches had radio receivers turned on and the news was thus broadcast over the camp. The Danish prisoners took their leave and boarded the coaches. The prisoners could not help but notice the cold manner in which the Swedes addressed the SS men.

By that time, a number of prison camps had already been liberated – Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen… Starting from 20 April 1945, evacuation transport began to appear in Terezín, bringing in up to several thousand prisoners a day. The new arrivals were initially placed in the Hamburg and Dresden barracks. Once those did not suffice, they were also placed anywhere where they could fit in. These evacuated prisoners brought a deathly threat to Terezín with them – epidemic typhus. (We discussed this part of Terezín history in an earlier TM Newsletter.) The first days of May were thus marked by the attempts to help the terminal typhus patients. On 2 May 1945 both Terezín camps were taken over by the IRC due to the onset of the epidemic. At that time, large convoys of the routed German army were passing Terezín. The Czechoslovak flags were already over the camp. As late as on 5 May the commandant Rahm asked for these to be removed, but then he himself left. On 8 May 1945, the first Soviet tanks passed Terezín, bringing liberty to its prisoners. On 10 May 1945, the Soviet Army took over the camp and Mayor Kuzmin became its commandant. The situation was very complicated, with roughly 3,000 prisoners leaving the camp in the first days of peace. Husbands and wives arrived to look for their spouses, parents came looking for their children. The typhus epidemic continued to spread, leading to a 14 day quarantine being proclaimed on 14 May 1945 and no one was allowed to leave the camp. (More on these and subsequent events can be found in the Newsletters 1 and 2/2005.)



[1] Acta Theresiania, Prague 2003, volume 1, p. 493, MT 67

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